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KCMO's Land Bank wants you to lighten the city's blight burden



Matt Keeney pulls a city-issued white Ford Focus to the curb in front of 4543 South Benton Avenue. The bushes in front of the 101-year-old white bungalow here have grown rampant, blocking a small set of concrete stairs from the sidewalk to the boarded-up front door. This is what Keeney, a field inspector for the Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department, has come to see.

Across the street, another house's screen door opens enough for a man to poke his head out and offer a little advice. "Y'all be careful," he shouts. "A family of raccoons lives there. There are seven of them!"

Keeney is here to assess the property for the Kansas City, Missouri, Land Bank. Its object: Take ownership of derelict properties. He examines the house's scrubby exterior and sagging roof for a minute, and he knows.

"I can see, based on the roof, this is going to more than likely be recommended to be demolished," he says.

"Probably more than half of them need to be demolished," David Park says of the approximately 850 houses held by the land bank.

Park, the deputy director for Neighborhoods and Housing Services, has been a city employee for 36 years. This attempt at a land-bank model isn't a new idea, but it is, he says, an improvement over what came before.

The land bank is a central ownership entity for properties that have fallen into tax foreclosure and then gone unpurchased at auction. It also holds properties within city limits that had previously been owned by the Jackson County Land Trust.

Since being approved by the state Legislature last year (after failing to pass during the two previous sessions), the land bank has taken possession of more than 3,600 properties throughout the city. Now, Park says, Kansas City can do more with the properties than the land trust was able to do — an improved arrangement if only because KC spent the past decade shelling out cash to deal with the properties anyway.

"The city was spending $1.8 million a year, approximately, maintaining land-trust properties," he says. "The city is the one paying the bills, but it had no say in what happened to the properties." And the bills were going up. "Just the weed [removal] itself has probably gone over the last 10 years from $300,000 to $800,000," he says. "It's been growing the last few years as the inventory grows."

The land bank is now assessing its holdings, which include empty lots, homes and nonresidential buildings, so they can be sold to investors through the bank's website. (So far, pending closing, the land bank has agreements to sell 39 properties, most of them vacant lots.)

"We don't want to hold on to properties," Park says. "We want to sell properties."

One big challenge, though, is that the majority of the bank's holdings are either small urban lots that can't be built on or side lots that abut an occupied property. Park says his team is going to have to be a little creative in unloading the parcels.

"Our thinking was, one way to deal with those — to get them back on the tax rolls and out of our maintenance budget — would be to let the next-door neighbor buy it," Park says. A homeowner living next to an unexpectedly available parcel could, for instance, end up with a larger yard. "Problem solved," he says.

Some such sales have cleared for $1. Even so, the bank has already uncovered a few quirks that can't easily be unkinked. One property that has made its way onto the land bank's ledger is a 7.5-square-foot parcel within the front yard of an occupied home in south Kansas City. It's the result of platting errors handed down unnoticed over decades of recordkeeping. It's also, Park says, an example of why the bank is selling certain lots only to neighboring owners.

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